Many Indianapolis Gay Establishments Exhibit Poor Urban Designs

By now, the DiRimini apartment complex drama has become a familiar tale to anyone following urban Indianapolis issues.  The infill development project, located in western downtown Indianapolis, has been under construction since early 2010.  Over the past several months as the building rose out of the ground, it became obvious that what was being built did not resemble the plans submitted to the city for approval in 2009.  Therefore, in early September, the city’s Department of Code Enforcement issued a stop-work order on the DiRimini due to 35 cited violations on the downtown urban design guidelines, standards all new construction projects must follow.

Aside from being architecturally hideous, the building fails because the ground level does not interact with the street, the windows are out-of-scale, the building material is tacky, there is no differentiation between unit walk-ups, there is poor fenestration, and the retail component does little to activate the street frontage.  Really, I could go on and on about why the DiRimini exhibits poor urban design, but this story, which has been heavily covered by the local media for the past few weeks, shines a light on an even bigger issue plaguing numerous streets in our urban core: poor urban designs.   While there are numerous offenders, many of which that deserve to be called out building by building (I am looking at you 3Mass,) I have noticed an abundance of poor urban designs among a prominent group of buildings/places that deserve to share some of DiRimini’s spotlight: Indy’s gay establishments.

If you drive around or go from place to place, you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of Indy’s gay restaurants, bars, or nightclubs feature 1970’s era boarded up windows, hidden entrances, and have an overall ‘vacant’ look.  Below are four such examples, all found in downtown immediate urban core.

English Ivy’s @ 9TH and St. Joseph.

Talbott Street @ 22nd and Talbott.

Varsity Lounge @ 16th and Pennsylvania

The 10 @ 12th and Pennsylvania

The images speak for themselves; these places do not abide by an urban design aesthetic that strives to create active, vital streets.  And they ought to (even the nightclubs), as each establishment is located in a commercial urban setting and thus should abide by an urban aesthetic that is positive and progressive, not shameful and stuck in the 1970’s.  To make these places more contextually sensitive to their settings, they need to include more attractive facades that add character to the area, feature significant ground level fenestration to create an inside-out connectivity to the street, and have entrances off the sidewalk to activate street life.

These types of improvements would be a positive step for the Indianapolis urban community.  For example, English Ivy’s sits along Alabama Street in the midst of a small, quaint commercial district.  In this area, open storefronts with high levels of fenestration add vibrancy to the street and create a small community node unique in downtown Indianapolis.  Ivy’s is perhaps the most frequented establishment in the district but unfortunately, it detracts from the otherwise nice commercial corridor as the façade creates a wall to the street, giving the structure a vacant feel and look.  Ultimately, this is something that depresses the area instead of activating it.  If Ivy’s opened itself up and featured large windows that connected the inside of the restaurant to the street, an even more vibrant district would be achieved, and a greater sense of place could be attained.  And in the end, a sense of place is our urban core’s strongest asset and competitive advantage over suburban and exurban regions.  Thus, urban design improvements, no matter how small, need to be prioritized so Indianapolis can truly attain a vibrant urban core, something that’s an important characteristic of any 21st Century world-class city.

I believe implementing physical urban design improvements will also have a positive impact on social aspects of the gay community.  Opening the establishments to the streets with a strong urban design aesthetic signifies a strong gay community that is no longer interested in hiding behind the 1970’s shame facades.  Such improvements could increase community visibility and begin to raise more awareness, regional acceptance, and tolerance.  Plus, a stronger gay community sends the message to the outside world that Indianapolis welcomes diversity and progressivity, things that are important characteristics of any 21st Century world-class city.

So for a better urban fabric, a more visible gay community, and a stronger, more world-class Indianapolis, it’s time the gay community demand better urban designs out of the establishments they frequent!

Comments 11

  • Hasn’t it been sort of semi-traditional for gay establishments to feature opaque windows? I’m assuming less so today given society’s greater tolerance, but it is easy to understand at some level why these buildings look they way they do. Also, were these buildings like this prior to their use as gay oriented establishments?

  • Lots of bars and pubs have no windows, mostly-boarded openings, or opaque/mirrored “windows”: Living Room and BW3 come to mind immediately. There are many others in neighborhoods outside downtown. One establishment Greg didn’t mention is Greg’s on E. 16th between Delaware and Alabama. The facade is attractive but opaque.
    I agree, though: urban places should step up. One good example in kind of a “wasteland” is Downtown Olly’s, in the 800 block of North Illinois. Big windows, sidewalk dining with umbrellas. Quite a contrast to the DiRimini around the corner and the mishmash of stuff in the area.

  • This is a bottom-line issue for owners and pretty straightforward. Gay bars have opaque windows so that people on the street can’t see who is in the bar. A large percentage of their clientele may be closeted — especially in their work lives — and those people will simply go to another bar. Owners are more interested in providing a comforting safe space to their clientele than catering to broader aesthetic norms or making political statements. Incidentally, this continues to be the case in places much more “progressive” and “gay friendly” than Indianapolis. Check out the urban design at most of the gay bars in Washington D.C., Providence, Boston, or Atlanta (to name a few off the top of my head) and you’ll see the same thing.

  • Greg, thanks for the interesting post. To add some color to your post, a few years ago, after a fire damaged the 501 Tavern at College & Michigan (in Lockerbie Square), the bar repaired the windows and then blacked them out. The IHPC told them that was an inappropriate treatment and that it would need to be changed. The 501 operators said something to the affect of “No one wants to see what goes on in here.” To resolve the issue the bar restored the windows and added blinds that could be drawn. I think the biggest stride in improving these establishments is through diminishing the social stigma of homosexuality (add forcing compliance with appropriate urban design standards when the authority exists). I would like to point out one notable exception, The Metro:

  • I didn’t even know The Ten was there — I actually thought that WAS a vacant building.

  • Gregg, just because some of the people in the establishment are closeted does not give the owner a reason to maintain an unattractive facade. There are ways to spruce up a facade without giving away privacy and secrecy (ie. Greg’s on 16th Street). But having said that, the gay community actively encourages those who are in the closet to come out (hence National Coming Out Day) and does not promote hiding or denying one’s self. Thus, this should not be something gay bars/restaurants promote either.

    And while poor urban designs are common on gay establishments across the country, you will notice places like Columbus, Ohio has a more out and proud gay community and their establishments reflect that. Not to mention obvious places like Chicago and New York which do as well. So IMO we shouldn’t just accept these norms but instead look for positive change as seen in other cities.

  • In addition to the points Gregg pointed out in his post, I would also note that large windows in many of these places simply wouldn’t work because of basic nightclub design guidelines. Mega-watts of loud, bass thumping dance music and large “picture” windows do not a good match make. And this isn’t true for just the gay establishments, it’s pretty much the rule for these types of venues the country over. I grew up in Indy, lived in Los Angeles for the past several years and now live in South Beach. I’ve gone (and still go) out to dance clubs in more places and more often than anyone probably should and I can think of very few – outside a few of the “open walled” concepts in L.A and here in SoBe – that aren’t very reminiscent of thos in Indy.

  • I would love to see the gay establishments band together in a movement to open their windows and reestablish their connections to the city. Not only does it have a urban value, it has a symbolic value. One, that they are accepted by the city of Indianapolis (which I believe they are) and two, that they accept others as well. While fully-supportive of gay rights and understanding of the desire to be in a place where one feels fully accepted, I wish I felt like it was acceptable for me, a straight female, to patronize these establishments as well. The boarded windows and closed-in appearance of the establishments sends the message to me that they are for gay patrons, and gay patrons only.

  • Great article. The new owner of the Varsity is opening up the orginal windows in the building. Looking forward to seeing the finished product.

  • Another interesting point on this topic is that the patio behind the METRO bar is right next to the Cultural Trail that runs down the alley behind Mass Avenue. There is an 8 foot solid wooden wall however, between the Cultural Trail and Metro’s patio. On the other side of the Cultural Trail is Chatham Tap’s outdoor patio. It is open to the trail, with just a short metal fence. Maybe Metro could open its patio to the trail as well. It would definitely be a more inviting appearance from the perspective of the cultural trail user – a view of a patio with people hanging out and enjoying drinks as opposed to a solid wooden wall.

  • I think someone over at the SSC forums mentioned this to someone in a decision making position at the Metro. I wouldnt be surprised to see it happen. The fact that its already open the street is cause for optimism.

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